Pierre Bourdieu

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Pierre Bourdieu (1930–2002) was a French sociologist and anthropologist (and an important political figure), most known for his works on the habitus, the class system, and social reproduction. Born and raised in France, Bourdieu initially taught philosophy and studied in Algeria during the Algerian war. In his book, "Sociologie de l'Algérie", he highlighted important parts of the war and how it sociologically affected the people who were living through it. He eventually founded the Center for European Sociology, and was influenced by many important sociological actors and thought to construct his own sociology. His studies could be marketed as poststructuralism, in that he tried to emphasize the points at which an individual lived in the overall social context of hierarchy. Essentially, he sought to understand the differences in class and how they perpetuated themselves.[1]

Social space[edit]

According to Bourdieu, his main sociological thought rests on the premises of the concept of social space. Social space in this context refers to the 'map' of cultural and economic icons and things that are instituted by certain individuals at any given time. The 'map' does not exist as an absolute determination of social space, but rather is a description of how different aspects of society are compared and contrasted against each other to make determinations about where a person is on the scale. While Bourdieu references certain axes of this 'map' of social space, the axes themselves are always prone to change in definition. Therefore, the important thing to take away isn't the specific content of the axes, but rather how the content gets contextualized via other existing content to create a judgment of where it predominantly fits on the scale. This action of placing things on the scale in the first place is the true area of study.[2]

Economic capital[edit]

There are two axes that Bourdieu references in regards to social space. The first is Economic capital. Economic capital is easily determined by the amount of monetary functions and property that a person owns in a society that promotes this form of private ownership. It is easy to place an objectively measurable conclusion about how much capital one owns: simply measure the amount of value placed on that economic capital. However, what is determined to be economically legitimate is ultimately determined by the social characteristics and its value in use. For instance, a plot of land is not necessarily equal to any other plot of land. A shoddy plot would have less value than a fertile plot, therefore the person who owns the fertile land would have higher economic capital because that would be considered to have higher use.

Similarly, the type of money that one owns is not universally recognized by a certain social standard. US dollars and Chinese Yuan may have an exchange value between them, but one would not be able to use a Chinese Yuan in an American institution. For as long as someone's economic capital takes a certain form, it may have less value than another economic capital, even if on paper they may have similar values. Thus, it is squarely reasonable to conclude that economic capital is based on a definitionally acceptable form of economic capital, based on the current societal context. The key difference between this form of capital and cultural capital is that this one is systematically defined, not subjectively. That is, a subjective system can be made, and therefore any participant in the system is able to participate in the system. Economic capital does not depend on who a person is, but rather is defined by what they own.[3]

Cultural capital[edit]

The other axis, cultural capital, is harder to define. While economic capital can be squarely defined within the system's sanction, cultural capital is much more fluid and loose, resulting in more subjective definitions about where cultural capital is appropriate. Similar to economic capital, only certain types of cultural capital are recognized within the instituted system. However, unlike economic capital, cultural capital is wholly independent of the instituted system, and is instead dependent on the collective acceptance of certain predisposed expectations. For instance, a Mexican-American in the United States may not have as much recognized cultural capital as an Anglo-Saxon American, or vice versa, wholly dependent on where they act that cultural capital.

Another important differentiation between economic and cultural capital is that while economic capital is measurable to how much someone has, the measurability to cultural capital is instead dependent on the appreciation for that cultural capital. Someone in society does not have 'more' or 'less' cultural capital than another, but rather has a set of cultural capital that is either more or less appreciated than other types of cultural capital, wholly depending on the subjective collective. The individuals actions, knowledge, beliefs, and customs all contribute to their understanding of the world, but the legitimation from the collective to their understanding of the world is what truly contributes to their position in social space, the determination of how valued their cultural capital is. [4]

The habitus[edit]

The habitus is what Bourdieu characterizes as the "internalization of externality". Essentially, it's the structure of understanding within an individual inscribed within them from their specific position in social space. It is marketed by Bourdieu to attempt to explain how social structures perpetuate themselves: essentially, they grow up in a 'world', similar to how phenomenology explains individual perspectives, that 'world' shapes how that individual views reality, and therefore that person enacts their interpretation of reality. By acting in the way that they understand life to be, they continue to support society in the form of how they understand it, thus continuing the process of the existence of social classes.

The exposure to language, the exposure to certain television programs, the exposure to certain foods, and the capability of a family's wealth. These are all things that individuals internalize about their social surroundings and how they interpret the world around them, continuously promoting parts of society that they're familiar with: they act in a way that was acted upon them. Unknowingly, this also promotes their own self-image in their place in the hierarchy of society. Some sociologists discuss the parameters of the 'culture of poverty', but such a discussion cannot exist without an understanding that certain cultures of certain classes exist. In this context, cultural and economics are linked together to create an individual standpoint that continues to propagate that standpoint.[5]

Social reproduction[edit]

However, it is not just individuals that perpetuate their own social circumstance. This enforcement is also dependent on the outward sanctioning from individuals and groups with power. To define cultural capital as legitimate is not a single-pronged effort by a singular social group, it is defined in terms of the social group in power. The claims of legitimacy in something as abstract as culture usually rest in those with cultural power, redefining themselves and others to provide a situation in which it is clearly designated what is appreciated and what isn't.

Social capital[edit]

As an extension and possible institutionalization of cultural capital, it can culminate in a form of social capital. Social capital rests in the hands of those who have connections to those who are able to elevate one's power. Rather than being collectively determined by the social situation, social capital is rather an individually held increment of power that one wields in order to achieve a position at which they are able to attain upwards mobility within the hierarchy. In addition, it characterizes the amount of power one has to mobilize members of a society into doing specific things.

Having social capital enables one to define certain terms, or to mobilize economic action. Continuously funneling economic capital into the hands of the few is one such way to enact social capital, as one that is able to define the system in a way to benefit one's own interests reflects their capability to modify the world around them and convince people to work for them.[6]

Symbolic capital[edit]

While social capital refers to the mobilization of people legitimized by the connections that one has to other people, symbolic capital is a different form of power that one has. Irrelevant to one's position in society, in how much wealth they have, how appreciated their culture is, or where in the system they have the capability to mobilize systemic action, symbolic capital rests in the fame of an individual and their capability to define terms in their way. While it can be linked to other forms of capital, this type of capital is hallmarked by the existence of prestige, honor, or other types of collective appreciation for a specific individual and the weight placed on their individual opinion.

For instance, a definition battle between the term "illegal immigrant" and "undocumented immigrant" is one that hallmarks the struggle for defining a situation: are people illicitly committing crimes, or are they victims of a system and situation that they're placed in? This type of symbolic nuance rests in the hands of those with symbolic power, the power to get people to agree with their definitions. Placing words on things in a certain way to invoke a certain reaction is one that is seen constantly in the public sphere, and is a way that cultural or economic capital can be weighted differently.[7]

Symbolic violence[edit]

Symbolic violence is one at which the dominated's definitions of the social situation squarely fits in the definitions that are given by the dominators. Essentially, it can be characterized by the internalization of someone else's externalities. For instance, the 'culture of poverty', if defined a certain way, can be characterized as symbolic violence provided that it implicitly assumes a negative connotation to having low economic capital. Similarly, racism can be defined this way as well. When African Americans accept the definitions given by the Whites in power, namely that they are primitive workers and are destined for a life of slavery, they sublimate themselves through the act of symbolic violence in that they accept the ruling class's definition of what their group consists of and who they are.

Symbolic violence and the struggle to define certain aspects of social life in different ways rests in the realm of fields. Fields are places at which power, both cultural and economic, can be consolidated for the purpose of perpetuating ideas of stereotypes of classes. For instance, a television show or a movie portraying a family in poverty acting a certain way is a form of symbolic violence on those in poverty who do not act that way. The violence rests in the field of media production, and has the effect of shaping an image of this specific social group understood to be seemingly true by everyone outside the group, with only the group itself knowing the truth. However, the social pressure and hierarchal imbalance prompts the dominated group to conform to this social idea of who they are, thus accepting the definition and completing the act of symbolic violence.[8]

Art and class[edit]

Bourdieu particularly holds an importance to cultural capital in art. Art, and how it is institutionalized and legitimized by the system, can itself be a form of symbolic violence and cultural definitions that contribute to the overall society as a whole. Not only is art able to institute a meaning into the members of society, but what that intended meaning is, is also something that is determined by class. 'High' culture and 'low' culture art can be compared and contrasted to see whether one recognizes either one as such, and what meanings an individual garners from said art.

If a person understands 'low' art very well, it is likely an indicator that they are of lower class. This is due to their individual worldviews being shaped by outward circumstance, meaning that their habitus is primed to recognize only certain aspects of art as having meanings, meanings specifically for that social group. People understanding 'high' art, on the other hand, likely are the same, in that they are within the upper class. Because they understand the nuanced meanings instituted by their specific habitus, only they are able to understand this type of art. This creates a boundary between the 'high' art and 'low' art in that ones capability to recognize its true meaning and context symbolizes ones own place in society.

This is especially relevant for the establishment of museums and libraries, although Bourdieu mostly talks about museums. While a museum is technically open to the public, available for any individual to enter, only certain social groups are able to recognize and understand the art within a museum. In a sense, the institution of a museum legitimizes only certain types of art due to its notoriety as an upper class institution, and so it follows that the art inside of it is indeed upper class. As such, only people who understand the upper class art would be legitimately in the upper class, while those who could not would not. Instead, art outside of the institution would be considered to be, perhaps, 'street' art, 'low' art, or even 'graffiti'. The walls of the institution of a museum create an implicit social boundary over which types of art and therefore ideas are upper class, and which ones are not. They play a very important role in differentiating class in society. [9]

The same, of course, can be said for any institution. It can be said about libraries, for the determination of which books and materials one chooses can predict your class. It can be said about grocery stores, for the determination of what foods you buy can predict your class. It can be said about fashion, for the determination of what clothes you wear can predict your class. The intersubjective nature and establishment of class create an interlocking framework at which class is maintained, symbolized, and constructed in a way that contributes to a structure of society.